Warlock is a film I have always enjoyed, but have also always felt a little let down by. It’s a fantasy horror feature that had a great deal of potential with some fantastic performances and a good story behind it, but a low budget really hindered its potential. Directed by Steve Miner (Friday The 13th, Parts 2 & 3), Warlock was produced by the struggling New World Pictures in the late 1980s. It didn’t gain a release in the US until 1991 due to New World’s filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy soon after the movie was completed. Trimark Pictures gained the rights to the series which have since been absorbed by Lionsgate. Sequels were produced (one with Julian Sands, one with Bruce Payne), and while they had more impressive production values, they both were generally inferior on a screenplay level to the original. Unfortunately, a proper widescreen DVD release has still not been made available by anyone who’s held the rights. However, I have discovered an excellent quality widescreen presentation via FearNet OnDemand. Seeing it only on VHS all these years, I am astounded by its quality, and that is going to factor into my revised review here. Still, I have to hope that this transfer will become available in a new home video release in the high-definition digital era.
The film starts out in Boston, 1691 where Giles Redferne (Richard E. Grant) – a witch hunter – has captured the Warlock (Julian Sands), and is soon to be executed in a most ‘Salem witch trial’ sort of way. Although, the Warlock escapes in a time warp via the forces of Hell. He is transported to the year 1988 (the present) to locate the three parts of the Devil’s Bible which will give him the true name of God, and the power to destroy all of creation. However, Redferne (Richard E. Grant) is able to follow him to the future, only one day too late. The Warlock has a head start on him, and has already placed an extreme aging spell on Kassandra (Lori Singer), the young woman whose home the Warlock crash landed into. So, now it’s up to Redferne to track down his archenemy before he destroys all of creation.
This is an impressively effective supernatural thriller. That is due to several talented individuals putting a lot of skill and time into this. It is a steadily paced picture filled with a good balance of suspense, action, light humor, dramatic moments, and horror elements. Gore only minimally factors into the film. It is the atmosphere and the deliciously evil, sinister performance of Julian Sands that helps land it near the realm of horror. He truly turns the film into gold above its budgetary shortcomings. He is the perfect evil disguised as a man – as the trailer states – “with the face of an angel, and the charm of the Devil.” He is frightening with an amazingly chilling screen presence that pulls you in fully. He can set a foreboding tone without saying a word.
Meanwhile Richard E. Grant delivers a fine performance bringing the pure-hearted, moral charm of the out-of-time and out-of-place Redferne to the surface. Grant makes Redferne a very likeable character as he has a warm heart of gold without becoming sappy. He maybe a bit naive because of him being a stranger in an even stranger land, but he remains dedicated to his purpose and oath to bring an end to the Warlock for all time. Redferne could’ve come off as a rather campy hero, but beyond all the old word speech, the value of Grant’s performance shines through to present an honest, grounded protagonist. Redferne is given a depth and history to give him his avenging motivations for hunting the Warlock to the ends of the world and time. Grant inhabits those qualities with weight and conviction. Redferne is also a worthy adversary as he is knowledgeable and experienced in hunting the Warlock, and is more than capable of not only combating him, but ridding the world of him. Most importantly, Redferne has heart – which is something you don’t usually see in this sort of genre picture. It’s a perfect contrast of good and evil where the performances of Grant and Sands are concerned. One is a passionate man of virtue, and the other is an icy cold villain. When the two occasionally share a scene, it is juicy, meaty content that fuels the momentum of the film. Their final confrontation in the climax is very strong, and allows the characters to feed off of one another, fleshing out their sordid history. It is a powerful and nicely crafted climax indeed.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing special or greatly important about Lori Singer’s character, but in the least, Kassandra is a decently enjoyable guide through the late 20th century for our kind-hearted hero from the 17th century. She does build a nice chemistry with Grant which gives way to some charming humor at appropriate moments.
The few visual and makeup effects present in the film were decent for the time it was made and the budget it was allotted. Still, some of the optical visual effects are severely dated by today’s standards. They may even seem obsolete by the groundbreaking standards of the day (i.e. The Abyss, Predator, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4). This really only applies to the optical composites of the Warlock flying. Although, I doubt the low budget effects will hinder your enjoyment of the film greatly. I have witnessed films, released before and after this one, with tremendously lower quality effects. I did find a nostalgic appreciation for the animated magical fire the Warlock wields. On the practical side, the old age make-up used on Lori Singer while she is hexed by the Warlock was far from being a crowning achievement, but it’s never been a serious detractor for me over all these years.
Steve Miner does as good of a job as ever here despite the film not being high on scares or blood – unlike his work on the first two Friday The 13th sequels. However, Warlock is a worthwhile supernatural thriller, and Miner should be proud of what he was able to create here. He handles the story with respect and care. He provides suspense and tension where need be, and is able to ramp the intensity up at the right moments. The screenwriter for this film was David Twohy (The Fugitive, Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick), and he definitely wrote a fine script that shows a rough, early version of his now well-known style. If Twohy wanted to direct a remake, or a worthy sequel – I’d definitely be privy to seeing it. With a more generous budget and little studio interference, he can churn out a really good film.
Looking at the credits of this film, there are a some notable names that would become horror veterans themselves. Two I noticed were David R. Ellis (director of Final Destination 2 & 4) as stunt coordinator and second unit director, and special make-up effects artist Tom Woodruff, Jr. of Stan Winston Studios and later Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. (who have become responsible for the creature effects on all the Alien sequels). It’s always interesting to see that such amazing talents worked on a film such as this early on. It gives good context on where they’ve been, and how they’ve advanced their craft over the years.
The cinematography is fairly good. There’s a nice choice of angles and movement, and in select scenes, very moody lighting that enhances the Warlock’s dramatic presence. These elements come together quite well with the visual effects to create a darkly fantastical atmosphere. I don’t know how well it all would work for a modern audience, but since I grew up through this era, I can appreciate it with a nostalgic context.
The one last thing to praise is the late Jerry Goldsmith’s score. I have loved his work for years from his scores for the Star Trek franchise to an endless MASSIVE list of feature films. His score for Warlock had haunting, mysterious elements, and an epic feeling at the film’s climax. This musical master always delivered something memorable and wonderfully cinematic, no matter what the film or genre. It’s a sad thing he is no longer with us. I just hope that his legacy will be carried on by new generations of musical masters.
In the end, it really is the budget that holds down the greatness of this film. It had some solid talent in front of and behind the camera along with a well written screenplay. Not to mention, the title role was perfectly cast with an actor that envelopes the screen, and inhabits every scene with vile charm. Warlock simply did not have the money to boost its production values to a level comparable to the talent involved. It generally does not look cheap, but the dated and low quality visual and make-up effects damage it. But where there are films that falter despite great visual effects and production values, this one soars to respectable heights despite lower grade effects and budgetary limitations. This is due to the quality of talent injected into it, and the solid foundation laid down with David Twohy’s script. It’s full of charm, suspense, mystery, intrigue, and subtle terror. I thank the now defunct Trimark Pictures for picking up this film from the then defunct New World Pictures. I just wish Lionsgate would do something special for this old gem because it honestly deserves it.